All media critical to effective government, whether Andrew Barr likes it or not

All media critical to effective government, whether Andrew Barr likes it or not

Andrew Barr is not the first politician, local or federal to unfriend The Canberra Times, or the print media, or the "mainstream media," nor the first to imagine and hope for a day in which communications between himself and the governed can be managed with social media, or, in an unfiltered form, through marketing people and his own spin doctors. But I expect that his ambitions are doomed to be dashed, and that his ultimate political demise, which, deo volente will be many years away, will, like that of most politicians, be at the altar of that public opinion at the real centre of his fury.

This is not because the media will persecute him any more than he imagines it already does, or because it will be determined to win any debate about its own role or activities, or to claim that it has won. His problem is more simple. He has confused government public relations and "communications strategies" with the political market place, at which ideas are advanced, argued, modified, compromised and, often improved.

Andrew Barr in 2010.

Andrew Barr in 2010.Credit:Gary Schafer GCS

Like every other politician forever, Barr may yearn for a way to communicate and commune with voters, without having his words filtered, weighed, counted and measured by the media, some members of which may not present his arguments fairly. As leader of the ACT government, commanding resources bigger than Tasmania's, he has access to enormous resources – bigger than the ACT media combined – with which to market and plant his messages. But those resources matter very little in determining whether policies are good, or effective, or popular: that can be determined only by a debate, an argument and by keeping the issue to the forefront of people's minds. Whether the debate occurs on air, on paper, on a mobile telephone or a iPad is of only secondary importance to the fact of its occurring at all.

Like everyone else, including the media, involved in the debate process, Barr and his government are looking at new ways, and new mediums, for commanding an audience, and gaining the attention and involvement of people, particularly younger people, who have, in the past, often been indifferent to many of the debates going on. New media may have a slightly greater capacity to get the attention of such people, but getting them involved in the process involves a good deal more than making a loud noise.

If there were a new magic shortcut for getting active engagement with all of the electorate, especially younger ones, one might have expected that some politicians elsewhere would have discovered it by now. Barr, frankly, is not a sufficiently charismatic politician, nor are his ideas so good, to be likely to get the cut-through and the followership that he seems to imagine he can get by fiddling with the means by which he puts ideas out there. Still less can he achieve consent, or shortcut the political debate process, by silly and trendy ideas such as citizens juries, or exercises in deliberative democracy, whatever that means. On most such issues voters will generally not engage until an issue arises which affects or excites them. At that point, no one thinking that their view must be heard will accept a substitute.


Anyone who doubts this need only look at the turgid prose, slogans and statements of the bleeding obvious, (mixed indiscriminately with dubious or meaningless propositions) passing for a "whole of government communications and engagement strategy." It's complete with eye-glazing flow-charts of imagined processes almost designed to sap any initiative, imagination or speed from any decision, engagement, consultation or "listening" session that the government proposes. The strategy, which is available on the government's website, is itself the product of an expensive discussion process with people who are supposedly expert in government communications.

Barr said the government and the consultants "have looked closely at the British government, and at its government communications service, who are recognised global leaders in government communication. We have sought expert advice from experienced engagement practitioners and academics from the University of Canberra's Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance".

It's really quite amusing, in a city focused on government, to hear Britain described as a global leader in government communication. Britain gave us consummate frauds such as Tony Blair whose administration made an art form of putting spin over substance, stunts, and "sexing up" government white papers to allege a threat of imminent attack, in Britain, of missiles from Saddam Hussein. With a government so in touch with its constituencies that it completely failed to anticipate Brexit. It's the nation which gave us In The Thick Of It, as a virtual documentary, with, if anything, the redoubtable Malcolm Tucker being somewhat less aggressive, domineering and foul-mouthed than some of the people on whom his character was modelled.

Just what an engagement practitioner actually does is not entirely clear to me. Methinks it is a role somewhat akin to the modern facilitator, or supposedly "independent" moderator on a large fee from a proponent (often a property developer) to pretend to consult with parties, to listen to and engage with them, and then to reformulate the proposal, with a few cosmetic changes, as representing the "spirit" of a hostile reception. In much the same way we must also assume that the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance is entirely professional, scholarly and detached about both the merits of its contentious, manipulative and unaccountable processes, and the need for the centre to be engaged to provide them.

"We will be clear about what is up for debate, so Canberrans are in no doubt about what is open to change as a result of community feedback," Barr promises. "And we will be clear when we are sharing information to keep the public up to date on new or changed services and the implementation of any policies we took to the election."

We are promised that the government will listen. Will engage. Will deliberate "to cut through the politics, understand the value dimensions, and develop public interest solutions". It will consult. And it will keep the community informed on what was decided on, on what basis, and why.

This would be a truly Damascene conversion, particularly by Barr, were it to happen. Week one of Year Zero has so far seen the slogans much repeated; but no actual change in behaviour.

These statements of good intention are, no doubt, piously meant, right now. But they came from a government which has a long history of being secretive, of giving mates, cronies and party insiders privileged access to government, and which has a long and deplorable habit of delay, shelving reports, or ignoring anything which it does not want to hear. A good many of the problems are encapsulated in the personality of Barr himself – a person quite resistant to getting into debate, someone often given to getting into a sulk and refusing to deal with groups who have annoyed him, and with a very poor record of openness and transparency, particularly in relation to development deals.

One should look at the humility with which he greets critical Auditor-General's reports on deals by which development-focused trade unions got the better of government bureaucrats, and the complacency with which any suggestion of accountability is dismissed. Or the lack of devotion to debate or answering questions at the Assembly, or the studied refusal to attend functions likely to be dominated by older folk. This is not a man who listens, welcomes debate, or engagement with the wider public. Nor has he yet changed his antipathy to putting projects out to open tender, or throwing (and committing) himself early when carpetbaggers are around. Experience has shown over and over that neither Barr nor his bureaucracy can match their wiles; they are simply not experienced enough with big business.

Meanwhile he has come to notice that the overwhelming proportion of people who get actively involved in community politics are older, often retired people, and that younger folk do not come to meetings, or otherwise get much involved. He has persuaded himself that the older activists are cranks, busybodies and people attempting to keep the capital in some sort of 1960s aspic – a complete hindrance to the sort of regeneration, renewal and remodelling of the city, its institutions and its economy so badly needed if it is to prosper in the years ahead.

He has persuaded himself, with very little in the way of evidence he has ever volunteered, that the younger half of the population (including those below voting age) are enthusiastically in favour of all of his proposals . Since (he thinks) younger folk do not pay attention to conventional media, but get all their news from Facebook, Twitter and text messages, it is only appropriate that he, their leader, follow them. I sometimes wonder why, if he is really the king of these kids, so few belong to the Labor Party, or form recognisable factions within it.

Barr has done some courageous things as Chief Minister. I give him considerable credit for his work to move the ACT away from stamp duties and other economically inefficient taxes towards taxes on land -- work that the Australian states are now trying to copy. But any prospect of getting a medal from the Henry George Society must be diminished by the arbitrary, secretive and unaccountable ways by which groups have been privileged by waiver of betterment fees. Barr has long wanted and expected the tram service to be largely funded by increased rate and land tax revenue as a result of intensive residential development along the tram corridor: good policy, if again undermined by the appearance of subversion of land planning systems to help things roll along. That the Barr personality and dominance is accompanied by a timid, politicised and pliant bureaucracy, and by colleagues unable or unwilling to stand up to him, makes it rather the more likely that the slogans may change but the behaviour will not.

No doubt he thinks that his life would be more easy, and the ride of his government more comfortable, if media organisations like The Canberra Times did not exist. His alternative media does not have the resources, or the time, to draw attention to political embarrassments, scandals and abuses of public trust. Experience has shown that even the watchdogs become less active when they are not themselves under close scrutiny. In just the same manner, ministers, and directorates are noticeably less focused on public interest, good process and proper record keeping when they have little prospect of being called to account. It is not without interest that a tripartisan commitment to an Independent Commission Against Corruption by the end of the year is now being allowed to be delayed, still yet without clear sign of government commitment to a robust form, open hearings, or a commissioner capable of inspiring fear.

The pity of it is that a strong media, in every medium, including new media available, is critical to effective government and the governors. And not only from the public's point of view. The relationship between media and politicians is necessarily antagonistic and somewhat distrusting, but there is ever a zone for some cooperation and mutual respect. The various forms of media do more than act as an uncritical bulletin board of things that the government wants the public to know. It is also the chief means by which government itself can judge the state of the debate, whether the message is being heard, and whether it is taking. Rather more than through private meetings with lobbyists, it is the means by which the views of stakeholders are heard, and the means by which stakeholders advance or retreat as views and facts are proffered by others whose interests are affected. It is the means by which politicians and others can make judgments about who is galvanised, or exercised and who couldn't care less.

It will, I think, be some time before the political temperature can be taken from Facebook, from friendly self-serving opinion polls, or from hand-picked panels and citizen's juries. Or from Twitter. Despite Donald Trump.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.

Jack Waterford is the former Editor-at-large at The Canberra Times and writes a regular column